Kathy Acker and Postmodernism

Though Kathy Acker doubts her ability to write essays, she nevertheless tackles the classical questions like any other essayist. In her short essay on postmodernism, she gives an answer to the question “What is art?”

Her answer is that art is “free discourse”. You make art where you create something new, not limited by the accepted discourse but altering it, and so transforming culture.

Engaging in discourse means “using given meanings and values, changing them and giving them back.” Art isn’t the only way of doing this: “A community, a society is always being constructed in discourse if and when discourse – including art – is allowed.”

Art is not just discourse but “free” discourse because, in art, anything is possible. It is “making”, where “making” means “make it new!”

Art, then, is about economy: you take what is given and give back something new, of your own making.

If the economy is “set”, art is not needed. Fascism, for example, dictates the rules for exchange and so art – in which there must be freedom to create new rules – is forbidden. Fascists believe that everything can be found in the past. I think of Nazis yawning through yet another performance of the Ring Cycle.

Discourse is about the present. Art isn’t paintings in a gallery: art is what is being created now to decide the culture. If you are going to put on some Wagner then “make it new!” – art can be set design and direction, translation and programme-writing.

Even today, perhaps we are heading towards a “set” economy, something like fascism. Everything already decided for us. If culture is decided for you, you don’t need to be an artist.

“We are now, in the United States and in England, in a world in which ownership is becoming more and more set: the rich stay rich; the poor stay dead.”

This is why postmodernism is a necessary “tactic” for an artist. Postmodernism means believing that the given narratives are not enough to explain the world. It means taking the established narratives and “going on” from them, going beyond them, and thereby keeping yourself open to new ways of talking about the world, society, and yourself. You keep discourse alive by affirming your power to create discourse, meaning, and culture.

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